In a graduate contemporary American poetry class I took some twenty years ago, a fellow student complained that a poem we were reading was “just trying to immortalize this scene.” I found it an odd objection, since I thought that’s what poems were supposed to do. It’s an impossible ambition, but I can see no reason to write if one doesn’t strive for the unattainable. One is deluded if one believes one has achieved it, that one can actually preserve the world in words, but one is just playing games if one doesn’t try. I don’t believe in reaching only for what one can grasp, in doing only what one knows can be done, especially since what can be done is never knowable in advance, though what we decide we can do strongly conditions what we are able to do.
The world cannot be saved, in any of the several senses of the word. And to save the world would be to stop it, to fix it in place and time, to drain it of what makes it world: motion, flux, action. As Yeats wrote, “Minute by minute they change;/….The stone’s in the midst of all” (“Easter 1916”). Allen Grossman is not the first to observe that in this regard poetry is a deathly activity, removing things from the obliterating stream of meaningless event that is also the embodied vitality of the world and of time’s action in and upon the world, which creates and destroys in the same motion. The stream of time is both life and that which wears life down to nothing. “Poetry is the perpetual evidence, the sadly perpetual evidence, of the incompleteness of the motive which gives rise to it” (The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers 71).
But at the same time, elements of the world can be and have been saved. Thus the history of art. Each artwork that has endured through time is a piece of the world that has survived, and carries with it other pieces of a world, of worlds, otherwise gone. That we are able today to admire the sculpture of Praxiteles, to gaze upon a Rembrandt painting, to read of Keats’s fears that he shall cease to be, is evidence that something does remain, something can be carried over, rescued from oblivion. The artwork is evidence of its own survival. Allen Grossman writes: “My most fundamental impulses are toward recovery, the securing once again of selfhood in something that lies invulnerably beyond history, something which promises enormous, inhuman felicity” (The Sighted Singer 41). I would add that, for me, the impulse is not just for the conservation of personhood, but of worldhood. I seek to save the sensuous appearances, the particulate worldness of the world.
Perhaps to believe oneself equal to such an ambition, to claim be, at least in potential, a poet powerful enough, important enough, to nurse such an ambition, is presumptuous. As Spenser wrote, "Be bold, be bold, be bolder still. Be not too bold." One must remember one’s place, one mustn’t get above oneself. I have never been one to know my place. I would never had gotten out of the Bronx ghetto, would never have achieved anything other than a life of grinding poverty, had I not gotten above myself, had I not presumed that I could be more, that my life could be more. Unlike Eliot’s Prufrock, I do presume, and I do dare disturb the universe, or at least I try. I find nothing unseemly about ambition. Ours is a society in which everyone expects to be accepted just as he or she is, even to be lauded just for being him or herself, however false or inadequate that self is even to itself. But in life it’s a failing not to try to be more than one is. In art, it’s an unforgivable sin.
The drive to be more, to be too much, even, is the engine of art, which at its best exceeds definition, determination, domination. If one cannot make grand claims, one cannot make grand attempts. Modesty can be charming in life, though it’s often a cloying pretence; in art, modesty is almost always a failing, an admission not just of failure but of the failure to try. Most contemporary poetry, of all schools and camps, is entirely too well-behaved, too content to remain within its proper bounds, to do what’s expected of it. I have no interest in reading or in writing such poems.
I am not embarrassed to make large claims for poetry. Their impossible possibility is one of the things that first drew me to poetry, and it continues to compel me. I can see no point to writing, to being an artist, if one doesn’t want to matter to the world, if one doesn’t strive toward something grand. This grandeur need not be merely of scale, though size and importance are often confused in our world. As Eliot concludes after many equivocations, to be a major poet does not require that one write a long poem. There are major poets who have not done so, among them George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, and Paul Celan. And to write a long poem does not make one a major or important poet, let alone a great one. Many minor poets have written long poems (Robert Bridges comes to mind), often with the ambition to become major poets. The aspiration is a noble one, even if the results fall short of a goal perhaps defined too narrowly or on shaky premises (“A long poem is a major poem. Thus I will be a major poet if I write a long poem”).
The major poet is one who has not only written wonderful poems (and again, the wonderful poem is much more rare than some think it to be), but also one whose work adds up to more than the sum of its parts, the accumulation of those wonderful poems. Obviously one can’t predict this about one’s own work or about the work of one’s contemporaries. But Stevens was able in his late poems “The Planet on the Table” and “As You Leave the Room” to look back on his life’s work and know that he had accomplished something that mattered: “his poems, although makings of his self,/Were no less makings of the sun.” And Pound could look back at The Cantos, his failed epic, and realize that, though he had tried to write paradise, he could not make it cohere.
I won’t live to know whether my work has outlived me. But one can’t predict the future in general, and this doesn’t prevent us from making decisions that influence, change, and often determine that future. The future isn’t wholly unknowable, and the future doesn’t just happen: in large part we make it. This works no differently in poetry than in any other field of endeavor. There is no guarantee that one will reach any of one’s goals in this life. But not to struggle toward those goals is to guarantee that they won’t be reached. I choose, in the words of Tennyson’s Ulysses, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”